Two years on

Today is August 1st, the second anniversary of our son’s motorcycle accident, where he lost control at a corner and collided with a steel road barrier, severing off his left leg and badly mutilating the other.  It was the day when our world was turned completely upside down.  The weeks following were an absolute nightmare.  Looking back, we wonder how we ever got through it.  If it wasn’t for God’s sustaining grace and the faithful prayers of his people, the outcome may have been quite different.

Even so, the whole episode has affected us more than we both realized (perhaps I was the slower to admit it), and it is only now, two years on, that we feel that life has retained a measure of stability.  It has made me think quite differently about those who go through some kind of trauma.  It can leave even the strongest of us feeling weak, battered and a little frail about the edges for months – perhaps even years afterwards.

Francelle put some of her thoughts down on paper (it is the first time she has been able to do so since the accident).  I asked her if I could include in this blog.  She graciously agreed.  So here it is.

As I’ve been reflecting over the past two years, I’d thought I’d share three things that God has taught me in the midst of our new normal.

God’s grace is sufficient. It seems like a cliché, until you really experience it.  I can still remember the awful terror rushing towards me like a speeding freight train when we first got the news.  I covered my ears, not wanting to know if Mark was dead or alive.  But in that place, God met me and sustained me.  He really does walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  I remember filling my heart with the truth of God’s word and calling out and asking Him to with me—and He was.

God’s love is shown through His children. In those early days, Peter and I were surrounded by love and tangible support from our brothers and sisters in Christ.  One couple laid everything aside and drove over 14 hours to be with us during those early days in the hospital, sharing with us in our sorrow as we dealt with the repetition of telling Mark he had lost a leg, experiencing the grief time and again.  But not only friends and family helped-the people of God surrounded us with help and love in so many tangible ways.  I knew God loved us because God’s people were caring for us.

God calls us to walk the life of faith. Hebrew 11:1 tells us Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The walk of faith calls us to dwell in the realm of the unseen. When tragedy strikes, it purifies the heart.  Do I really believe that God works all things out for the good of those who love Him? 

Not every story has a happy ending.  While Mark survived in a miraculous way, he will live with the damage done to his body all his life.  And as yet, he has not chosen to follow the God who saved his life.  But I do know that God is faithful and all of His promises are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20).  However, I recognise that I may not live to see all that God would do because of this tragedy, just as the saints of old did not receive what was promised.  But while I wait, I can continue to fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Heb 12:2).

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God time

Now that I have come to know God and enjoy walking with him daily, I don’t know how I or anyone else could live without him.  No one knows me like he does.  No one cares for me the way he does.  And certainly no one is able to fix up the mess I often make of my life (and the lives of others) the way he can.  And that is why, before I meet or talk with anyone else in the day, I first meet and talk to him.

Some Christians call it a “Quiet Time” which sounds a bit odd if you’re not conversant with ‘Christianese’ lingo.  It also doesn’t sit that well for us masculine types.  Another term is “Time Alone with God” (TAWG) which is better, but still doesn’t do really do it for me.  Bill Hybels calls it “chair time”.  Find a spot in your house where you can be alone, sit yourself down and connect with God.  When you’re in that chair, other people know to leave you alone because that’s your personal time with God.  I kind of like that – much better for us blokes.

Whatever you want to call it you need to make time for God.  You need to make time for God because it’s the foundation for your entire life.  Your relationship with God affects your marriage, your career, your finances, and your relationship with your kids, co-workers and neighbours.  It affects your thought life, your emotional health as well as your daily decisions and actions.  In fact, there is hardly anything I know that my relationship with God does not affect.  That’s why you need to develop a strategy to make time with God a priority in your life.

And just to make things clear, this isn’t about finding ways to earn favour with God; to get into his “good books” if you like.  There’s only one way to get into God’s good books and that is by believing and trusting in Jesus. “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).  Salvation is by grace, through faith.  We please God when we take him at his Word and trust in his way of making us right with him, not our own way.  No, this is about responding to God’s invitation to get to know him more intimately and allowing him to speak into our hearts.  This in turn will lead into a more enriching, satisfying and fulfilling life.

“My heart says this about you: “Seek his face.” Lord, I will seek your face” (Psalm 27:8)

God speaks to our heart and our heart speaks to us, and then we in turn speak back to God.  That’s how it works.

So how do I go about my Quiet Time or Chair Time or whatever you want to call it?  Well, it for the most part it consists of Bible Reading, Meditation and Prayer.  Those are the three main ingredients that help me connect with God.  It’s a tried and true method.  Godly men and women have walked this trail throughout the centuries and I’m happy to follow in their footsteps.

  • I read Scripture.  God speaks to me through His Word.
  • I meditate on Scripture, reading it slowly and thinking carefully about those words and what they might be saying to me.
  • Then I respond by speaking back to God

Now let me provide you with an example.  During one morning meeting with God this week, I opened my Bible to Psalm 119.  My focus was verses 33-40.  I asked God to speak to me through his Word, and reveal to me more about Himself and what he wants for me.  As I gazed over the text something caught my attention:

33 Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your statutes, and I will always keep them.,
34 Help me understand your instruction, and I will obey it and follow it with all my heart.
35 Help me stay on the path of your commands, for I take pleasure in it.

Notice he asks for help twice – help in understanding God’s Word (v.34) and help for obeying it (v.35).  We need double assistance from God – light to know the way and strength to walk in it.  Not only does my mind need to be enlightened, my will also needs to be moved.  And I’m completely dependent on God to do both.

So I began to turn this into prayer – “Lord help me to understand your Word.  My mind is dull.  It sometimes cannot grasp even the simple things.  And then when I understand what to do, please help me to do it. You know me well Lord, I am full of good intentions.  I don’t carry through on my promises.  And then, when I do obey you, don’t let me forget it was all of you.” 

Now that I’m starting to do real business with God, I sense a reviving of my spirit; the spiritual pump is primed so-to-speak, and I begin thinking of other needs – my wife and family, people who need Jesus, people in my church, missionaries etc. I begin to pray for all those people.  And I’m away.

You have to remember there is no special technique in all this.  It works differently for different people.  Some people start by listening to worship music or singing; others use devotional material of various sorts.  Some use a combination of all those things.  A staff member at our church shared how she journals her time with God.  When the Lord impresses some truth on her heart she writes it down and then makes a note of that on the inside cover.  I thought that was a great idea.

I have learned over the years that it is good to vary your time with God.  Mix it up.  Try new things.  Don’t get stuck in a rut.  Avoid at all possible letting it become tedious, dry or dull.  Because God is not dull.  He is the liveliest, most spirited, and most interesting person in the universe.

You just need to spend the time, each day, to get to know him.

 

 

Letting Go

Last week we had all four kids at home with us, for one night.  They live busy lives and it’s hard to coordinate their plans so that they are all here at the same time. There was plenty of laughs and banter – the kind of raucous you’d expect for the Somervell household.  I got them all to sit on the couch so I could take a picture, which was a bit of a mission because they wouldn’t keep still (hence the slightly blurred effect). “They haven’t changed much,” I thought to myself.  How did we manage to raise such an unruly lot? I can’t even take a picture without some level of chaos!”  

But as I stood there with the camera, watching them horsing around, a deep sense of fondness and affection for them welled up within me.  Despite all the pain, heartache and loss of sleep they have caused over the years, I really did love each of them deeply.  It’s not that I ever doubted this.  But something happens when your kids grow up into adults.  The relationship changes.  You are still their parent, but it’s in a different sense.  They are no longer living in your shadow.  They are their own individuals.  They now make their own choices in life – for better or for worse.  Some of those choices you are happy with; others you are not so happy with.  But you still love them all the same.

You may have heard of a phrase parents often use called “letting go.”  Well, it’s a lot easier said than done (in my experience).  And it’s not just a one-time deal.  I find myself having to continually “let go.”  After all, when you consider my wife and I have invested 23 of our 25 years of marriage raising, nurturing, teaching, training and caring for each of these precious individuals, you can understand why letting them go is a daunting task.  They are not ordinary people.  They are very special.  They are part of us.  They are a product of our love and commitment to each other and to God.

I can’t speak for my wife, but the most difficult part of the “letting go” has been with my two sons.  That might surprise you.  You’d think it would be with my daughters.  Fathers can be very protective of their daughters and find it hard when they leave home.  I have no problem with my daughters leaving home.  I know whose hands they are in.  They are both strong believers in Jesus and have surrendered their lives to his Lordship and loving care.  Whatever choices they make will be, for the most part, wise ones.

My sons however have not chosen to follow Jesus.  They made that decision in their late teens.  They both have their own reasons for that, which I respect.  But I personally find it very difficult.  In fact, rarely is there an hour in the day when I’m not thinking about it (and praying for them).  And it’s not because I’m a controlling father (at least, I hope not).  Nor is it because I’m disappointed that my own sons are not following in my footsteps.  It’s because heaven and hell are serious realities for me.  The Bible isn’t a collection of fairy stories and fables.  It is divine truth, which affects the eternal destiny of every human being, including my four children.

No loving, responsible parent, who holds these beliefs can overlook that.  It’s just not possible.  So yes, I’m still having a heck of a time letting my sons go (in the spiritual sense).  In fact, until they come to Jesus I don’t think I ever will.  I will continue to wrestle for their souls before my Heavenly Father, begging that He will reveal Himself to them in such a clear and profound way that they believe.

In the meantime, I will work on loving each one of them equally, without showing favouritism, supporting them in where I can and praying for them daily.  This is my God-given duty, privilege and joy.

 

 

 

We’re no different to you, Sonny Bill

Following last Saturday’s test match between the All Blacks and the Lions, the New Zealand media spewed forth a tirade of criticism toward Sonny Bill Williams for his most unfortunate shoulder charge on Lion’s wing Anthony Watson.  It was a Red Card event.  Sonny Bill was sent off for the rest of the game, leaving the All Blacks to fight the rest of the game out with only 14 men.

The media showed no mercy.  Their swords were out.  The headlines said it all – ‘SBW joins the hall of shame’, ‘A red day for Sonny Bill’, etc., etc.  Read a little further and it doesn’t get any better:

“SBW. Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand’s best known and most polarising sportsman. Insert variations here, and thousands did in the aftermath: B for blundering, maybe even brainless; W for, well, take your pick. What was he thinking? In one of the biggest tests of his and his team-mates’ careers?

 At normal speed it looked an error of judgement. The slippery surface and the fact Anthony Watson was falling in the tackle were flimsy arguments for the defence. On replay it was a brain snap of epic proportions, and completely needless.”[1]

 “There were no arms and there was no concern for the opponent’s safety. He caught Watson flush on the jaw and the winger went down. It was the tackle of a man who still hasn’t got the violent stupidity of rugby league out of his system.”[2]

Wait a minute.  Let’s take a step back.  What are we actually dealing with here?  This isn’t a moral failure of some kind.  He hasn’t been caught with another woman in a public restroom (as another All Black was).  He didn’t beat up someone after a night on the booze.   It was an error of misjudgment during play.  Sure; it was serious – and extremely dangerous.  He could have put the other guy in hospital.  But it wasn’t intentional.  And from what we understand, there was no malice in it.

Under the Mosaic Law he would have received leniency.  Under grace he could receive full mercy.  He received neither from the New Zealand public.  How do we get it so wrong?  Why are we so quick to acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent (or at least, less guilty)?

To render such harsh criticism toward Sonny Bill for this action is not only unfair; it’s utterly hypocritical.  Why?  Because we are no different.  Are we to say that we never, in the heat of the moment, act rashly or out of character; that we never verbally shoulder-tackle our wives or husbands or kids, or that we never say or do something thoughtless that inflicts pain and injury on others?

Come on New Zealanders.  Get a grip.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, there’s a good lesson here – about prideful fault-finding.  Jesus puts his finger right on it in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use. Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1–5, CSB)

Now this text is often misinterpreted to mean we should never judge other people under any circumstances.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying, because he goes on to explain the kind of censure he is forbidding: self-righteous, smug and hypocritical judgement.  Judgment that sees a tiny tear in someone else’s shirt while yours is nearly ripped in half.  Judgement that over-exaggerates small character flaws in others while minimizing (or completely ignoring) gigantic faults of your own.  Judgement that pronounces Sonny Bill a monster for a misjudged tackle while you, in a flash of anger, assassinate a family member for sitting in your chair or taking your pillow.

The beam of wood in your own eye prevents you from accurately seeing the tiny splinter in someone else’s eye.  In short; your sin blinds you and renders you incompetent to make any kind of accurate judgement on another individual.  It’s a lesson from the carpenter’s shop (where Jesus spent much of his life). I find it hard enough to see with just a bit of dust in my eye.  Multiply that obstruction by 1000 and, well – you get the picture.

So then, the answer is we shouldn’t judge?  Not at all.  The answer is when we see someone mess up, we do some self-diagnosis on our own behaviour for that day, or the week, or the month.  Who did you offend?  How did you inflict injury on someone?  Where did you mess up?  Be as severe on yourself as you are on others and the problem will be fixed.  Better still, be even more severe on yourself than you are on others and everyone else will look like an angel.

I think if we followed Jesus’ advice we’d all look at Sonny Bill’s misdemeanour in a more accurate light.  Instead of seeing Hitler reincarnate, we might pat him on the back and say, “That’s OK mate, we do this sort of thing all the time.  We’re just like you.”

Footnote:  For North American readers this incident occurred in a game of Rugby, not Football. There are very tight rules for what you can and cannot do in a tackle.  These guys don’t wear pads.  Shoulder-charges are illegal.  He was clearly wrong as this clip shows.  He was handed a four-week suspension after a judicial hearing.

 

[1] http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/all-blacks/94296806/lions-tour-sonny-bill-williams-brain-snap-joins-all-blacks-hall-of-shame

[2] http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/opinion/94049674/mark-reason-a-red-day-for-sonny-bill-williams-and-new-zealand

The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 4)

There are three tests of reliability that are used to establish whether or not an ancient document is reliable.  These are the Bibliographic test, the Internal test, and the External test.  The first test examines the biblical manuscripts, the second test deals with the claims made by the biblical authors, and the third test looks to outside confirmation of the biblical content.

Considerable time was spent in my last post on the bibliographic test, which deals with the early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  Now it is time to turn to the internal test.

2. The Internal Test

This test asks the question what claims does the Bible make about itself?  Now this may at first appear to be circular reasoning.  It sounds like we are using the testimony of the Bible to prove that the Bible is true.  But we are really examining the truth claims of the various authors of the Bible and allowing them to speak for themselves.

A number of biblical authors claim that their accounts are primary, not secondary.  They were eyewitnesses of the events they recorded.  For example, John wrote in his Gospel,

“He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth.” (John 19:35, emphasis added)

Then, in his first epistle, he wrote this,

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—what we have seen and heard we also declare to you…” (1 John 1:1–3)

The Apostle Peter makes a similar case when he writes in 2 Peter 1:16,

“For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The independent eyewitness accounts in the New Testament of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ were written by people who were closely associated with Jesus.  Their gospels and epistles reveal their integrity and complete commitment to the truth, and they maintained their testimony even through persecution and martyrdom.

Most of the New Testament was written between A.D. 47 and 70, and all of it was complete before the end of the first century.  There simply was not enough time for myths about Christ to be created and propagated.  And the multitudes of eyewitnesses who were alive when the New Testament books began to be circulated would have challenged anything that even looked like it was made up.

Furthermore, there are details found in the Gospels that give strong evidence for their integrity.  They record the disciples own failures – some of them very serious.  In Matthew 26:56 the disciples desert Jesus at his arrest.  A few verses later we find Peter blatantly denying that he knew Jesus (26:69-75).  In Mark 10:35-45 James and John are strongly rebuked for asking for the top seats alongside Jesus when he comes in his glory.  And when it comes to the resurrection, it is the women who believe, not the disciples.

If these accounts were false or fabricated, you would not likely find such candidness and honesty about the writers own failures.

3. The External Test

Because the Scriptures continually refer to historical events, they are verifiable; their accuracy can be checked by external evidence.

Flavius Josephus

The historicity of Jesus Christ is well-established by early Roman, Greek, and Jewish sources. Flavius Josephus (1st century Jewish historian) made specific references to John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and James in his Antiquities of the Jews.  He provides many background details about the Herods, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the high priests like Annas and Caiaphas, and the Roman emperors mentioned in the gospels and Acts.

And then there are the archaeological finds.  Time and time again, archaeology has confirmed what the writers of the biblical texts recorded.  As Millar Burrows, former professor of archaeology at Yale wrote:

“On the whole … archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.”

Let me give you an example:  In Acts 17:6-8, Luke uses the Greek word politarches to describe the city officials in the city of Thessalonica. That word didn’t appear in classical Greek literature so for many years, critics accused Luke of making a mistake.  Then archaeologists discovered a first-century arch in the town that used this very term — showing that the term was in use for government officials at the very time Luke was writing.

Gallio Inscription from Delphi, Greece, 52 C.E

Similarly, in Acts 18:12 Luke uses the term proconsul to describe a gentleman called Gallio.  That word didn’t appear either in classical literature so, again, scholars questioned Luke’s accuracy.  Then in the year 1900 an inscription was found at Delphi in Greece, dating to AD 51, using the same term — and amazingly, to describe the very same official, Gallio.   Once again Luke was proven to be a very accurate historian.

Many of the ancient cities in the Bible have been called into question.  One such city was Babylon.  Critics claimed no such city existed.  But in the 1920’s a man by the name of Robert Koldewey discovered the ancient ruins in modern-day Iraq.  King Nebuchadnezzar was considered completely factitious, that is until hundreds of inscriptions bearing his name were unearthed.  Again, the critics were silenced.

Robert Koldewey standing next to his excavation of the ancient city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq

Abraham is a name that dominates the narrative of the Bible – particularly in the Old Testament. He is held in the highest esteem by Christians, Muslims and Jews.  But did he really exist?  The Bible says he came from Ur of the Chaldees.  But did Ur really exist?  Critics claim since neither Abraham or Ur are found in any ancient records, they are a myth.

That claim could never be refuted, until archaeologist Leonard Woolley arrived on the scene.  Between 1922 and 1934, Woolley – together with archaeologists from the University of Philadelphia worked at what was thought to be the site of old Ur in southern Iraq.  After weeks in the back-breaking sun Ur was uncovered.

Sir Leonard Woolley

It is now clear that Ur was a major, highly developed and sophisticated city in southern Mesopotamia.  Ur was a city with a complex system of government and was a centre of commerce that used writing, receipts and contracts in business.

According to the Bible, David ruled in the tenth century B.C., using the traditional chronology.  Until 1993, however, the personal name David had never appeared in the archaeological record, let alone a reference to King David.  That led some scholars to doubt his very existence.  He had merely been created by later Biblical authors and editors.  But in 1993 that all changed with the discovery of the Tel Dan inscription in an excavation led by Avraham Biran.  Written in ninth-century B.C.E. Aramaic, it was part of a victory stele commissioned by a non-Israelite king mentioning his victory over “the king of Israel” and the “House of David.” 

“House of David” Inscription. Discovered 1993

Archaeology has confirmed hundreds of cities described in the Bible such as Arad, Bethel, Capernaum, Chorazin, Dan, Ephesus, Gaza, Hezor, Hezbon, Jericho, and Nineveh and many, many more.  Great discoveries are being made almost monthly today that confirm the truth of the bible and yet we never hear about it on the news or read it in the National Geographic.  When it comes to the historicity of the Bible, there appears to be a double standard – one for ancient texts and artefacts, and another for the Bible.  Yet the evidence is available for all to see, most of it being online.

Conclusion

When we take into account the bibliographic, internal and external tests of the Bible we find that it is far more reliable that the critics give it credit for (in fact, many attribute to it no credit at all).  We find there are VERY good reasons to approach it with an open mind, willing to take what it says as well as weigh its claims seriously.

So why read the bible?  Andy Bannister gives us three very good reasons:

Because from a historian’s perspective, we have good reason to trust it… Because only by reading it can you draw your own conclusions, rather than uncritically swallow somebody else’s second-hand-scepticism… Because through the pages of the four biographies in the New Testament, the gospels, one encounters a historical figure — Jesus of Nazareth — whose powerful personality continues to resonate and impact lives two thousand years on.

Those appear to be very good reasons to me to read this wonderful book.  What you do from here on with this – well, that is  up to you.

(Part 1)  (Part 2)  (Part 3)

The Bible: can we trust it? (Part 3)

In my last post we were looking at the first of the three tests used to determine the reliability of an ancient document: the quantity of manuscripts.  When we apply this test to the Bible, the result is amazing.  The number of New Testaments manuscripts is unparalleled in ancient literature.  The number of Old Testament manuscripts far less.  But what the Old Testament manuscripts lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.  And that is the next test we are going to apply.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC TEST

  • Quantity of manuscripts
  • Quality of manuscripts
  • Time frame

b) The Quality of Manuscripts

Because the great reverence the Jewish scribes had for the Scriptures, they exercised extreme care in making new copies of the Hebrew Bible.  During the early part of the tenth century (916 A.D.), there was a group of Jews called the Masoretes.  These Jews were meticulous in their copying. The texts they had were all in capital letters, and there was no punctuation or paragraphs.  The Masoretes would copy Isaiah, for example, and when they were through, they would total up the number of letters.  Then they would find the middle letter of the book.  If it was not the same, they made a new copy.  It was very slow and meticulous work.  But this helped preserve the accuracy of the manuscripts.

Now all of the present copies of the Hebrew text which come from this period are in remarkable agreement.  But there was still a huge time gap.  The earliest Hebrew manuscript dates only back to 916 A.D., more than 1500 years after the last book of the Old Testament.  And that put the reliability of the Hebrew text into question.  That was until the discover the Dead Sea Scrolls.  And that changed everything. Rather than me telling the story, I’ll let this video do it for us.

Perhaps the best known of all the scrolls is the Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1.  It is perfectly persevered and contains the entire book of Isaiah.  The 66 chapters of this prophet (who wrote in approximately 700 years B.C.) are copied in a neat and beautiful handwriting.  Professor Horn devotes several pages to a detailed description of the finding and the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and concludes:

Its text proves that since the time this copy was written, probably in the second century BC or in the first, the book of Isaiah has not experienced any change… Everyone who has worked with this scroll has been profoundly impressed by the unmistakable fact that this two -thousand-year-old Bible manuscript contains exactly the same text as we possess today.[1]

What about the quality of the New Testament manuscripts?  It is not as good as the Old Testament manuscripts, even though they are newer.  That is because of the vast amount of copies that were made.  What they lack in quality however, they make up for in quantity.  Taking the many thousand of manuscripts, scholars are able to look at all the variant readings and reconstruct what would very likely have been the original in any given passage.

And we are talking about very small variants here – a missing word, having “he” instead of “Jesus”, or words that have been added.  What you need to know is only a small number of these differences affect the sense of the passages, and only a fraction of these have any real consequences.  Furthermore, no variant readings are significant enough to call into question any of the doctrines of the New Testament.  The New Testament can be regarded as 99.5 percent pure.  That’s pretty close!

Let’s compare the numbers on variant readings.  The New Testament contains approximately 20,000 lines, of which 40 lines are in question.  This equals 0.5% (one half of one percent).  The Iliad contains approximately 15,600 lines, of which 764 lines are in question.  This equals five percent.  That’s ten times more variants than the New Testament in a document which is only three-quarters its length.  The sheer number of extant New Testament manuscripts we possess narrows tremendously the margin of doubt on the correct reading of the original documents (known as autographs).

Of the 0.5% of the New Testament variant readings, only one eighth of those amount to anything more than a stylistic difference or misspelling.  Here’s an example of a fairly typical variant reading:

MSS. 1 Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole worl.
MSS. 2 Christ Jesus is the Savior of the whole world.
MSS. 3 Jesus Christ s the Savior of the whold world.
MSS. 4 Jesus Christ is th Savior of the whle world.
MSS. 5 Jesus Christ is the Savor of the whole wrld.

As you can see, many of these variants involve nothing more than a missing letter in a word, a misspelling, or a reversal of the order of two words (as seen above in #2).  Some may involve the absence of a word; but of all the variants in the NT, it should be noted that only about 50 have any real significance, and that no major Christian doctrine rests upon a disputed reading.

So we’ve considered the quality and quantity of biblical manuscripts, now let’s look at:

C. The Time Span of Manuscripts

Apart from some fragments, the earliest Masoretic manuscript of the Old Testament is dated at A.D. 895 (due to the systematic destruction of worn manuscripts by the Masoretes).  However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 68 drastically closed the gap from 1500 to 400 years.

Now the time span of the New Testament manuscripts is exceptional.  The manuscripts written on papyrus came from the second and third centuries A.D.  Papyrus was a reed from the Nile Valley that was glued together much like plywood and then allowed to dry in the sun.  Another material was parchment.  This was made from the skin of sheep and goats and was in wide use until the late Middle Ages.  The Apostle Paul often wrote on parchment (1 Timothy 4:13).

The oldest of all known manuscripts that has survived is the John Rylands Fragment (P52), which was discovered in Egypt in 1936 and is now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester University.  It is another amazing story of survival.  This fragment is a small piece of papyrus that contains a few verses of the Gospel of John.  It has been dated by experts to around 130 A.D., only a few years after John’s death.  The 19th and early 20th century critics challenged the traditional date of John’s Gospel, saying it had been written much later – many even questioning whether John actually wrote it.  With the find of P52, those critics have now been silenced.  Take a look at this video clip – it is stunning to behold:

Then we have the Bodmer Papyri , dating back back to A.D. 175-225, which were discovered in Egypt in 1952.  They contain 104 leaves of John and other fragments.  Most of the papyri are kept at the Bibliothec Bodmeriana in Switzerland, outside of Geneva.  In 2007 the Vatican Library acquired Bodmer Papyrus 14-15 (known as P75), and is today kept at the Vatican Library.

Chester Beatty Papyri

And then there’s the Chester Beatty Papyri which dates from about A.D. 250 and contains most of the New Testament.  These papyrus fragments, well-preserved in earthenware jars, were found in an old Christian graveyard near the river Nile about 45 miles south of Cairo.  Dr. Siegfried Horn described it as “the greatest discovery with regard to the New Testament,” adding that the Chester Beatty papyri demonstrates once more that “no change of any significance had ever been made in the Biblical text.” [2]

Then came the find of a lifetime, the Codex Sinaiticus, which was discovered in St. Catharine’s monastery near the foot of Mt Sinai in 1859 by a German scholar, Konstantin Tischendorf.  It’s a fascinating story – one well worth reading if you get the time.  I’ll tell it briefly here.  Tischendorf had heard that St Catharine’s held the largest collection of ancient biblical manuscripts in the world and had visited the monastery on two occasions.

Monastery of St Catharine, Egypt, Sinai

On one of these visits, he had discovered a large basket full of old parchments in the middle of the monastery’s great hall and had been told two piles of old documents like them had already been burnt.  Horrified, he salvaged what he could and took home with him several pages that turned out to be parts of the Old Testament!  On his third visit in 1859, he discovered in the monaster library a large, bound manuscript that proved to be the remains in Greek of the entire Bible as we have it today.

Codex Sinaiticus

This manuscript dates back to 330-350 A.D.  It narrowed the gap between the last of the apostles and the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament to less than 250 years and demonstrated beyond all doubt the differences between the bible we have today and the bible as it existed around 350 A.D. are marginal if not insignificant.  David Marshall says,

Thanks to the Codex Sinaiticus we can say with assurance that in the New Testament of our twentieth-century Bibles we have to all intents and purposes the gospels, books, and letters as set down by their first-century authors.

In summary:  Applying the bibliographic test we find that the Old and New Testaments enjoy far greater manuscript attestation in terms of quantity, quality, and time span than any other ancient documents.  Sir Frederic Kenyon, British palaeographer and classical scholar, after researching all the available evidence, reached this conclusion:

The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.

We still have two other tests to conduct – the Internal test and the External test.  But that’s for next time.

[1] Siegfried H Horn, Light From the Dust Heaps, Review and Herald, 1955, pp 79-80

[2] Horn, op cit, pp.89-90

(Part 1)  (Part 2)  (Part 4

Keep Looking

Every now and then you come across something that is – well, simply wonderful.  I’ve been in pastoral ministry for many years now.  Over that time I’ve exhorted, encouraged, coaxed and even bribed people to give time to reading, studying and meditating on the Word of God.  I’ve always said, “You can’t rush it.  You must give time to it.  Gems are not mined in 5 minutes.  Nor are wonderful spiritual truths from God’s Word.” 

But it’s hard to get that message through.  Then I found this video from John Piper.  So did another member on my staff team.  We played it during our service a couple of weeks ago, to serve as an incentive to our people to SLOW DOWN in their reading.  Have a look and then I’ll show you how it can work.

Now let me show you example of how this works.  This week I was preparing a message on SERVING.  My text was Mark 10:42-45:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [CSB]

OK, so greatness in the kingdom of God looks different from greatness in this world.  Great people in this world go to the top and everyone else serves beneath them.  Great people in the Kingdom stay at the bottom and serve those around them.  It’s called servant-leadership.  Jesus modelled it with the greatest act of service: dying on the cross on our behalf.  Now he calls us to live it.

So that wasn’t too hard.  But nor is it that illuminating.  Any disciple of Jesus ought to know this.  Let’s look a little harder.  Something obviously happened to trigger this response from Jesus.  He didn’t just say it out of the blue.  And sure enough, when we read the passage prior to this we find James and John had approached Jesus and asked:

“Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you” (10.35)

Now that’s a very naughty question.  When my kids used to come at me with that I would rebuke them and inform them that is manipulation and we don’t do manipulate to get our way in this family.  Well, interestingly enough Jesus is quite gentle with them – more gentle than I was with my children:

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked them. (10:36)

A shrewd response.  James and John then ask if they could sit on his right and his left when Jesus sets up his kingdom.  They are opportunists.  They are getting in early while the stocks are low and there’s no competition.  Jesus replies by saying,

“You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink or to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with” (10:38)

They are asking for positions of prominence.  They want, like so many of us in this world, to be noticed; to be seen.  They love the idea of notoriety and status.  But the path to greatness in God’s kingdom is not status but obscurity, suffering and death.  Death to self-promotion, self-will, self-interest and self-glory.  And in Jesus’ case, death on the cross.  So now Jesus defines what true greatness (which is servanthood) looks like.  It is loving people so deeply you are not only willing to put their interests before you own.  It is dying for them if necessary.  Now we just dove 10 fathoms deeper.

But wait… there’s more.

If we back up three verses earlier we find a scene where Jesus is with his disciples walking along the road.  Now if we were to linger here, and look closer at the details, reading and re-reading these verses we find something interesting:

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. The disciples were astonished, but those who followed him were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them the things that would happen to him. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Gentiles…” (10:32–33)

Disciples on the road – on a path.  Heading up to Jerusalem.  And Jesus is walking ahead of them.  Not behind them.  Not beside them.  He is leading the way.  The disciples are astonished.  Jerusalem is a hot-spot for trouble.  It’s the home-base for Jesus’ enemies.  He’s heading straight for trouble.  And the disciples, they realize, are heading into trouble with him.  Then Jesus turns and spells it out for them.  “Fellas – I’m going there to die.”  But it goes right over their heads, just as things often go over our heads.

So we need to look harder – and further.  What’s happening on the other side of our passage?  Well let’s have a look:

“They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus (the son of Timaeus), a blind beggar, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many warned him to keep quiet, but he was crying out all the more, “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man and said to him, “Have courage! Get up; he’s calling for you.” He threw off his coat, jumped up, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus answered him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabboni,” the blind man said to him, “I want to see.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately he could see and began to follow Jesus on the road.” (10:46–52)

OK, so they have just passed through Jericho.  They are still on the way to Jerusalem.  They are back on the road.  Then they come across blind Bartimaeus who is sitting by the road.  Bartimaeus is not on the road.  He’s not part of the travelling band.  He’s not a disciple of Jesus, but he’d like to become one – if only he could see.  When he hears that Jesus is near he cries out to him – using his Messianic title.  He knows Jesus’ true identity.  He has faith in what he can do.

Notice how Jesus answers: “What do you want me to do for you?”  This is the very same answer he gave to James and John when they asked for the best seats in the kingdom (v.36).

Something is going on here.  Mark is trying to show us something.  But what?

The disciples are on the road with Jesus.  The road is leading to suffering and difficulty.  James and John are looking for positions of greatness. They want to be seen.  Bartimaeus isn’t on the road.  He isn’t of the company following Jesus.  But he’d like to be – if only he could see.  Jesus heals him – immediately, supernaturally.  And what happens next?  Bartimaeus begins to follow him… on the road.

So what is Mark trying to show us?  Bartimaeus is a picture of true discipleship.  He shows us what a true follower of Jesus is like.  True followers of Jesus are not ones who seek positions of power and authority.  They are not ones seeking to look great in the eyes of others.  They are people who are broken and damaged and on the side of the road, who call out to Jesus for the restoration and healing that only He can provide.  Then they get on the road and follow him.  After following him for some time, they become like him.  They too become servants, who have servant hearts and ask the servant question, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now you might be thinking, “I would never see all that.”  Perhaps not all of it, but if you lingered long enough, you might have seen some of it.  All those things can be discovered, simply by the process of observation.  You don’t need a commentary or bible dictionary or some fancy Study Bible or anything else.  You just need to look at the text.  Then you need to look at it more.  You begin asking yourself questions.  Then you look again, but closer.  You come back the next day and look again and then you see something you didn’t see before.  And so the process continues.

So give yourself daily to look and look and look at God’s Word.  Don’t give up or look away until you have seen more of him.  Wonders untold will be unveiled before your very eyes.

Footnote: Much of what I discovered in that text was not used in my sermon.  It didn’t fit the purpose for which my message was heading.  But it certainly changed the way I saw Mark 10:42-45.  And I’ll never “see” Bartimaeus in the same way again.